The pace of change in the multichannel arena is more rapid than ever before. Laura Heywood assesses the biggest retail technology roll-outs of the past six months.

1. Scanning technology

Asda is testing a 360° laser checkout called Rapid Scan at its York store. The technology is designed to increase the speed of scanning by up to 300%.

In addition to the laser scanning technology - which picks up barcodes from every angle - there are cameras and a moving belt, which allows up to 100 products a minute to pass through to the bagging area. The conveyor belt is split, so two people can bag shopping at the same time.

Asda retail director Mark Ibbotson hails it as a “technological triumph”, which is crucial in improving customers’ shopping experiences and reducing queuing time. Martin Smethurst, managing director, retail of manufacturer Wincor Nixdorf, adds that Rapid Scan was developed with big-basket shoppers in mind. “The system is easy for customers to use, offering them a positive checkout experience,” he says.

Saving customers’ time and improving their checkout experience has also been the motivation behind Sainsbury’s trial of scan-and-shop devices. The supermarket has been piloting an app, Mobile Scan & Go, whereby shoppers use a QR reader to ‘check in’ when they enter a store, scan items and then checkout at a regular till without re-scanning their goods. Last month, the retailer expanded its Mobile Scan & Go trial from three stores to 10 as it continues to test shoppers’ response to the technology.

Asda is also leveraging parent Walmart’s technology to test a scan-and-go mobile service in a number of stores. The service, which features in 70 Walmart branches in the US, saves shoppers time because they can scan items on their iPhone or iPad in the aisles and pay for them at a self-checkout counter.

But not everyone in the industry believes in the benefits of scan-and-go technology. “Scan and go is a damp squib if you’re a consumer,” says John Davison, managing vice-president at IT research firm Gartner. According to Davison, consumers are cautious about the technology when it requires them to pay with their mobiles or smartphones.

“They’re wary of these type of payments,” he says.

Instead Davison is an advocate of mobile loyalty schemes, such as the free Shop Scan Save smartphone app. It offers consumers money off certain products at stores with a PayPoint machine, including Spar, Costcutter, Nisa, Co-op and Londis as well as local newsagents. It is available in 22,500 stores nationwide and enables customers to save up to £250 per year on their convenience store shopping, he claims.

Mobile commerce is expected to increase six-fold between 2011 and 2017, so such technology will help develop loyalty and vouchering schemes, not only in the convenience sector but in the wider retail environment, Davison believes.

2. Tablets

In June, Coast, Oasis and Warehouse introduced wi-fi to their stores to enable the roll-out of iPads across their UK and European estate.

The iPads act as a transactional POS system to help reduce queues, improve customer information and act as interactive marketing, displaying images and video content on ranges, products and special offers. Customers in store can also use wi-fi to access the internet on their smartphones.

Aurora Fashions chief financial officer Richard Glanville says: “Being one of the first few fashion retailers to not just adopt iPad technology, but push the boundaries in terms of service delivered, demonstrates our innovation and ability to deploy solutions quickly.”

Communications solution provider Vodat International, which has implemented the wi-fi network for Coast, Oasis and Warehouse, claims iPads are still the most popular device being deployed in retail stores, and consumers’ most preferred tablet. Vodat head of sales Paul Leybourne says: “Customers are au fait with the technology and are comfortable with the layout - retailers don’t want to alienate their clientele by using less-trusted hardware.”

Over the past 18 months, Vodat has had great demand from retailers for in-store wi-fi to connect their multichannel businesses, Leybourne adds. “While some retailers are trying to provide wi-fi on the cheap, most see the value in installing business-class solutions that give them total management and visibility of the network from the head office,” he observes.

Wi-fi networks that provide guest access without compromising the performance and security of retailers’ corporate networks is vital, Leybourne maintains. “This can be achieved by limiting the sites customers can access and controlling the bandwidth they can have.

“This level of control ensures the network is being used in a cost-effective way. Slow loading speeds when stores are at peak trading times are a big worry for retailers - they need to be sure the network is strong enough to manage mass usage or purchases will be abandoned and they may even see adverse effects of having the technology installed,” Leybourne says.

Furniture retailer DFS has recognised that a growing number of shoppers access its digital offer using tablets. After observing that 50% of its web traffic comes from mobile devices and 33% comes from tablets, the sofa giant is relaunching its website to work best on tablet screens.

The site uses high-quality imagery and CGI technology to allow customers to view sofas in different colours and features live chat and video options. “We realised the current site wasn’t doing a great job of engaging customers on research,” says DFS online and business development director Tim Stacey.

3. 3D printers

Described by Gartner as “game-changing technology”, 3D printers could dramatically affect how shoppers buy products.

While some UK retailers including Maplin and Selfridges sell the printers, Gartner analyst Miriam Burt points to a time when retailers will be able to offer customised or personalised variations on stock items, which shoppers can wait for while they shop or pick up the next day.

3D printers will also increase availability of stock on shelves, and could negate the need for some. “It isn’t just another technology for retailers - it will disaggregate some retailers and manufacturers and become a business model changer,” Burt says.

3D printing is on the brink of mainstream adoption. While some of the UK’s biggest retailers are trying 3D printers in their research and development departments, in the US the technology is moving from niche adoption to broader acceptance.

Tesco is looking at how 3D printers could change the way stores work, such as offering gifts and personalised items, shopper-designed goods and producing spare or broken parts.

“The potential for 3D technology to revolutionise the way we view stores and what we can get from them is vast,” says Tesco innovation ambassador Paul Wilkinson.

4. Digital technology

Argos is among the big names ploughing investment into its digital offer. In July, the retailer launched catalogues that guide shoppers to interactive content on their smartphones.

Using Blippar technology, shoppers can point their phones at images in the catalogue to receive more product information. They can also use the image recognition technology to go to the Argos website where they can reserve products to pick up in store or order online.

The technology builds a bridge between Argos’ traditional physical publication and digital, according to the retailer’s digital director Bertrand Bodson. “It’s about creating a more interactive and joined-up shopping experience for our customers and we’re excited to see how they respond,” he adds.

Burberry is another retailer blurring the distinction between consumers’ experiences of shopping traditionally and online, according to Rick Curtis, chief strategy officer at marketing and technology consultancy Amaze.

“From playful digital rain showers to smart augmented-reality mirrors, Burberry’s technology facilitates product discovery and enables cross-selling. The retailer understands what excites its customers and how to connect with them. This is reflected by its sales figures,” he says.

Less digitally sophisticated retailers can successfully react to the digital challenge laid down by agile players - but only if they use technology to enhance and personalise the customer experience, believes Ian Shepherd, director of retail executive search firm Barracuda Digital.

“Much of the innovation we see in retail technologies around the world represents an attempt to re-engage customers with the shopping experience - to bring them back from the internet and the pure-plays and re-introduce them to the joys of browsing and buying,” he says.

“The technologies that will help in the long run are those that customers use, appreciate and tell their friends about. Technologies that make more products available, reduce prices and are light-hearted will help,” Shepherd concludes.

Payment technology - in brief

  • PayPal has launched a ‘check-in’ tool on its app, enabling UK shoppers to pay for goods using their name and profile picture.
  • Argos, Boots UK, House of Fraser and The Hut have signed up to MasterCard’s latest e-wallet service. By uploading card details and shipping and billing addresses onto their accounts, shoppers can pay through MasterPass with a mobile device or computer.
  • Footwear retailer Clarks has taken a step towards providing mobile payment by signing up to Visa’s digital wallet service, Clarks is the second UK name to sign up to after Dixons revealed it would offer it earlier this year.